Lord Nelson: Hero and...Cad!

A cache of recently discovered letters darkens the British naval warrior's honor and enhances that of his long-suffering wife, Frances

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 4)

Davison also helped Nelson juggle the demands of the two women in his life. “From December 1798 to late 1800, Frances writes to her trusted ‘friend’ a series which it is now impossible to read without a sense of dramatic irony,” Downer notes in the Sotheby’s catalog of the Davison family collection. In the early letters, about the time Nelson and Emma were beginning their affair, Frances expresses joy that her husband will soon be with her. “All the Boys letters from the Vanguard confirm my dear Lord’s intension of coming home,” she writes to Davison in the fall of 1798. She adds: “All hands expect my Husband home very soon.”


But by the spring of 1799 Nelson has still not returned from Italy, and Fanny complains about nervous illnesses, telling Davison that she “had upwards of eight oz. of blood taken” and adding, “I have had spasms, which has again shook me very much.” Still, she seems unaware of any romance between her husband and Emma, and offers to come to Naples to help nurse Nelson back to health. He rebuffs her. “I fixed as I thought a proper allowance to enable you to remain quiet, and not be posting from one end of the Kingdom to the other,” he writes in early 1801.


“It’s quite clear that she doesn’t understand what’s happening,” says Nelson Encyclopedia author White. “She’s bewildered and upset and hurt, and she’s blaming herself in classic abandoned wife fashion.” Even so, she remains generous toward her husband. “There’s one very poignant letter where she tells Davison that she actually destroyed some letters that Nelson had sent her; she didn’t want to affect his reputation for posterity. That’s not the act of a bitter and estranged woman; that’s an act of love.”


Apparently unaware of her husband’s betrayal, Fanny even entered into a correspondence with Emma. “Lady Hamilton’s second letter, I have received it,” Fanny writes to Davison in March 1799. “It mentions my Husband’s recovery. . . indeed he required Agreat deal of good Nursing and Asses Milk. Sir W. and Lady Hamilton’s kindness, attention and real friendship, has been great indeed just such as yours.”


But by November 1800, Fanny, in a letter to Davison, appears to realize that Lady Hamilton has become more to her husband than a solicitous friend: “[British Admiral] Lord Hood always expresst his fears that Sir W. & Lady Hamilton would use their influence, to keep Lord Nelson with them: they have succeeded.” Finally, that same month, Nelson returned to England. Almost everyone knew that he and Emma were having an affair, and polite society was scandalized. Nelson did spend a few days with Fanny but was soon spending most of his time with the Hamiltons, also returned to London, at their Piccadilly town house, or at Davison’s mansion on St. James’ Square.



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus